Oh, Peter Thiel. It’s always entertaining when smart people say stupid things, but we probably shouldn’t be surprised by what Thiel said in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. As brilliant as he has been at predicting the future and making investments that hit big, the man isn’t known for his for pulling punches – or worrying about what others think of him for that matter.
Not that I really need to tell you, but last week while speaking to an audience in Chicago, Thiel basically told the room they weren’t very bright or they wouldn’t even be there. “If you are a very talented person, you have a choice: You either go to New York or you go to Silicon Valley.” Those were his exact words. You can almost hear the cringe.
There’s no arguing that a lot of the best and brightest from every city in the world have flocked to the coasts for the chance to catch the next rising star. Every year, I watch hundreds of graduates from my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, head to Silicon Valley to make their fortunes. It’s been reported that UW provides the Valley with more tech workers than any school except Stanford.
I admit that’s hard to watch, especially when there are so many great things happening in Waterloo. We boast the second highest density of startups outside of the Valley. There’s hardware, software, robotics, ed tech, wearables, marketing tech, smart traffic, and on and on. Not to mention Google and other tech giants, including Netsuite, Square, and Electronic Arts, have opened offices here because they recognize the wave of talent that graduates every spring. But I guess some people don’t mind spending half their salary on apartments the size of Thiel’s coffee table.
I won’t lose sleep over what Thiel said, mainly because Waterloo – and other tech hubs like Austin, Boston, Toronto, London, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Singapore, and on and on – shouldn’t try to be Silicon Valley. They should embrace who they are and take advantage of their individual strengths. David didn’t beat Goliath by becoming a giant. He found his own competitive advantage. And that’s not to say that any of this is a competition. There are no prizes for having the most startups or unicorns.
Thiel’s tone deaf comments just perpetuate the myth that there’s nowhere else worth being. The rest of us plebes in the boonies will just have to prove him wrong. Fortunately, there are plenty of investors who will see Thiel’s comments as an opportunity to find the diamonds in flyover country, and there are plenty of diamonds to be found. Thiel can close his mind, but the rest of us will be better off when innovation happens everywhere instead of within one or two echo chambers.
And who knows? Maybe Thiel will help us out with the brain-drain problem. He is endorsing Donald Trump for president. For those of us outside the United States, maybe he’ll get his wish, and all of those brilliant foreign minds will want to go home.